SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Department of Corrections is making headway toward a goal of reducing the prison population 25 percent by 2025, but continued partisan gridlock over the state budget could undermine that progress.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner set that goal shortly after taking office nearly two years ago and established a commission to make recommendations for criminal justice reforms to keep more people out of prison.
The state’s inmate population has dropped from 48,214 on Jan. 12, 2015, the day Rauner was inaugurated, to 43,807 last week, a 9.1 percent decline.
Rauner made his case for criminal justice reform last week in Chicago, where he joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers to sign a bill that will ensure people being released from state prisons or juvenile detention facilities have valid state identification cards.
“Criminal justice is not just about punishment,” Rauner said. “If we think that it’s only about punishment, we will never keep the people of Illinois safe.”
The criminal justice system is about keeping dangerous criminals away from the public, Rauner said, but it’s also about providing rehabilitation so that people don’t continue committing crimes once they leave prison.
That idea has been a rare area of bipartisan consensus amidst Illinois’ bitter budget battles.
Prison reform advocates applaud the reduction in the state’s prison population, but they caution that there’s still a long way to go to achieve the governor’s goal. And the inability of Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to come to an agreement on the state budget will only make things more difficult, they said.
Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association, a Chicago-based prison watchdog said, “We’re seeing (prison population) numbers we haven't seen in well over a decade” but the system is still overcrowded and “we shouldn’t rest on our laurels.”
Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, which has used a series of lawsuits over several decades to push for reforms within the Illinois prison system, agreed with that assessment.
“This system would still be overcrowded if we had 35,000 people in it,” Mills said.
The advocates attributed the decline to a combination of factors such as policy changes within the Department of Corrections, judges and prosecutors using their discretion in bringing cases and handing out sentences, and fewer people being sent back to prison for technical parole violations.
While there’s a national push to re-examine incarceration, Mills said Rauner deserves credit for helping change attitudes in Illinois, especially among lawmakers who might otherwise fear being labeled as “soft on crime.”
The General Assembly has passed several laws, like the one Rauner signed last week, that should help continue the downward trend in the prison population.
But Vollen-Katz and Mills said achieving an additional 16 percentage-point reduction will be more difficult because it will require addressing more controversial issues like mandatory minimum sentences and “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which make it harder for people to be released early for good behavior.
Making matters even more complicated is the ongoing budget impasse, which has damaged the ability to provide services both to inmates and to people outside of prison who might end up there. Among them are Redeploy Illinois — a program designed to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system by connecting them with mental health treatment and other services — and community-based mental health and addiction treatment programs.
“As a prosecutor in a small jurisdiction, I can tell you that if we’re not investing in programs like Redeploy, investing in our youth, then we are going to have an incredibly difficult time reducing our adult prison population,” said Tyler Edmonds, the state’s attorney in Union County in southern Illinois.